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Seoul-Moscow relations entered a new era in the 1980s. In many ways, Roh's Nordpolitik and Mikhail Gorbachev's "New Thinking" had something in common--they were attempts to reverse their nations' recent histories. Their efforts, while supported by popular longings, still confronted serious resistance from conservative and powerful bureaucracies. In a fundamental sense, the Soviet economic crisis appeared responsible for Moscow's improved relations with Seoul. Politically, Gorbachev had signaled Soviet interest in improving relations with all countries in the Asia-Pacific region irrespective of sociopolitical system, including South Korea, as was clearly spelled out in his July 1986 Vladivostok and August 1988 Krasnoyarsk speeches.
Improved Seoul-Moscow relations appear to have been carefully and systematically planned in three related stages: sports, trade, and political relations. The Seoul Olympics was a major catalyst. The Soviets were eager to participate in the games, if only for the sake of the athletic competition. More than any other country--including the United States--Seoul's honored guests were from the Soviet Union. Moscow sent more than 6,000 Soviets to South Korea. Soviet tourist ships came to Pusan and Inch'on and Aeroflot planes landed in Seoul. And when the Soviet team headed for home, it also took along thirty-six South Korean television sets, seven minibuses, four large buses, four cars, and one copy machine--all gifts from Daewoo.
Economically, Seoul and Moscow were natural partners. South Korea had been seeking to trade with the Soviet Union even before Gorbachev came to power. Gorbachev desired foreign capital and high technology, as well as Seoul's help in alleviating the Soviet economic crisis through direct investment, joint ventures, and trade. Moreover, with the advantage of geographic proximity, South Korea was an ideal source of badly needed consumer goods and managerial skills. As early as May 1979, during a visit to Helsinki, then South Korean minister of foreign affairs Pak Tongjin signed an agreement obtaining Finnish assistance in exporting South Korean products to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Seoul has welcomed trade opportunities with Moscow and considers the Soviet Union a significant part of the global market. Moreover, the natural resources Seoul increasingly needs--oil, metals, timber, and fish--are abundant in the Soviet Far East. Trade with the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China would also alleviate South Korea's apprehension over the United States' increasing trade protectionism. Moreover, South Korea's expanding trade with Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union initially was encouraged by the United States, although Washington later became increasingly concerned over possible high-technology transfers.
Because of the lack of diplomatic relations, most South Korean-Soviet trade initially was indirect; Eastern Europe, Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore served as intermediaries. With an increasing volume of trade, Seoul and Moscow began trading directly, using facilities near Vladivostok and Pusan. Several major South Korean businesses including Daewoo, Sunkyong, and Lucky-Goldstar traded directly with the Soviet Union in 1990.
Based on mutual economic interests, the Korean Trade Promotion Corporation (KOTRA) and the Soviet Chamber of Commerce and Industry exchanged a trade memorandum in 1988 pledging mutual assistance in establishing trade offices in 1989. During a six-day visit to Seoul in October 1988, Vladimir Golanov, deputy chairman of the Soviet Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was received by officials of South Korea's major multinationals. KOTRA president Yi Sun-gi signed the trade memorandum in Moscow in December 1988. Seoul's trade office in Moscow opened in July 1989; Moscow's trade office in Seoul opened in April 1989. In December 1989, Seoul invited Soviet officials to attend a trade exhibition where members of the Soviet state-run Tekhsnabeksport displayed impressive high-technology items.
Political relations were developing gradually. South Korea's new-found wealth and technological prowess had been attracting the interest of a growing number of socialist nations. In initiating Nordpolitik, its chief architect Pak Ch'or-on--Roh's confidential foreign policy adviser--was rumored to have visited Moscow to consult with Soviet policymakers. Kim Young Sam visited Moscow from June 2 to June 10, 1989, with the apparent approval of the Roh administration. Selected from among several other South Korean politicians (including Kim Dae Jung, who had reportedly been invited to Moscow) to make certain that the newly emerging Seoul-Moscow relationship would proceed steadily, Kim Young Sam was received as a guest of the Soviet Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO). He participated in talks with various Soviet officials, including the newly elected chairman of the Supreme Soviet, academician Yevgeni Primakov. In a joint statement, the Reunification Democratic Party (RDP) and IMEMO pledged to promote closer trade and cultural ties between the two nations. While Kim Young Sam was in Moscow, the Kremlin announced that it would allow some 300,000 Soviet-Koreans who had been on the Soviet island of Sahkalin since the end of World War II to return permanently to South Korea--clearly a reflection of the continuing improvement in Seoul-Moscow relations.
Moscow even arranged a Seoul-P'yongyang meeting. Planned by IMEMO, Kim Young Sam, with Roh's prior approval, met with the North Korean ambassador to the Soviet Union, Kwon Hui-gyong, who reportedly proposed a regular exchange between the RDP and the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), as well as a North-South summit meeting. Kim also met with Ho Tam, chairman of the Committee for Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland (CPRF), who came to Moscow from P'yongyang.
The progress in Seoul-Moscow relations was extraordinary. Given the complementary and parallel interests between Seoul and Moscow, their relations were likely to proceed even if there were temporary setbacks. A highly experienced South Korean diplomat, Kong No-myong, was assigned to the Moscow consulate; an equally experienced Soviet diplomat was posted to Seoul. In June 1990, Roh held his first summit with President Gorbachev in San Francisco. Moscow's "Seoul Rush" may be regarded as an effort to reconcile (and possibly to terminate) its past political-military obligations to P'yongyang with the new economic and strategic opportunities in Seoul. Seoul's "Moscow Rush" had been conceived primarily as a way to utilize its growing economic power for political purposes, particularly in its relations with P'yongyang. On the other hand, if indeed the final destination of Nordpolitik was P'yongyang, Seoul had thus far proved to be less successful than Moscow.
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Source: U.S. Library of Congress